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Coaching as a whole college tool for securing improvement

09 July 2020

Ian Ashman, Executive Coach and Consultant with AoC Services, and former AoC President and Principal, reflects on the benefits of using solutions-focused coaching as a management tool not only in the traditional way with individuals but also with whole-college management teams.

‘Coaching is the art of facilitating the improved performance, learning and development of another.’[1] It has been quite widely used in colleges for helping improve individual effectiveness. But what if ‘another’ was the whole management team of a college? And what if that team could be encouraged to use coaching techniques with all their staff? Would it then be possible to significantly improve ‘the performance, learning and development’ of a whole college?

I was first introduced to executive coaching as a Principal new to role in 2002. I was undertaking a Principal’s Training Programme, as part of which I received a package of half a dozen coaching sessions. I found these invaluable in helping me adjust to the new role. It was especially helpful to have someone independent of the college, neither manager nor governor, with whom I could talk things through. Bouncing around challenges and ideas until an answer emerged was especially useful and coaching gave me that opportunity.

I found the coaching so helpful that I extended the it for a further year. The coaching was instrumental in helping me ensure that the college continued to improve and was graded Good by Ofsted, in a period when overall college inspection grades were falling.

Various successful organisations in the public and private sector have taken to engaging coaches to support many, and sometimes all of those new to senior roles. It has been found especially helpful when those new roles are in merger situations, where creating new cultures building on the best of what went before is required. It is also the reason that AoC Create has begun to offer Executive Coaching both as a stand-alone tool, or as an add-on to a senior appointment.

On taking up a second Principal’s role, in 2006, I took on a college in a great location, with great people and facilities but one where student success was low, inspection grades were declining and the financial deficit was growing. Good managers often seemed to find it difficult to help staff to find solutions to their challenges. “There’s nothing we can do” was a frequent refrain and there was a risk of the college going into a spiral of decline.

Working with the internal staff development team who had begun coaching training with managers, we decided to implement a whole-college ‘solutions focused coaching’ model. Through this we launched a cascade training programme, using a mix of external and internal trainers to develop coaching skills in all tiers of management and to train a team of trainers drawn from across the college. This team was then able to develop coaching skills with all middle and first line management. They also encouraged interested staff to use the same skills with students.

There are a number of coaching models available but we adapted the ‘OSKAR’, solutions focused model. Developed by McKergow and Jackson, OSKAR stands for Outcome, Scale, Know-how, Affirm + Action, and Review [2]. Essentially, it helps those being coached focus on the outcomes they want rather than the problems, uses ‘scaling’ to help people understand where they are, affirm what they are doing well already and plan action to take steps for improvement. Subsequent sessions review progress and allow people to build on what works.

Adopting the approach across the whole-college had a number of benefits. Firstly, it gave management a common language and set of tools for tackling the challenges set out in our improvement plans. Secondly it got people out of negative thinking and focused everyone on finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Thirdly, it allowed us to review where we were making progress, and why, and to apply that learning to areas with less progress.

A further, unexpected benefit was that it allowed us to ‘talent spot’. We used those who took readily to the approach in the training team. This included front line staff, from across the college, including women and those from black and minority ethnic groups. Many of these staff used their skills and experience of coaching training to secure management roles and a number of support staff moved into teaching as a result. This helped create a very diverse management team, with over 50% women and 40% BME.

The College succeeded in breaking the cycle of decline and in less than 5 years we had secured above average success rates for our type of college, gained a good grade in inspection and achieved break-even budgets. Coaching was one of a range of performance management techniques we used, alongside a focus on improving teaching, which contributed to this. Of course, the challenges continued after this but we always found that the language and tools of coaching enabled us as a management team to address those issues and to continue to make progress.

If you are interested in individual coaching or a group management training programme on coaching for your college, please get in touch

[1] Effective Modern Coaching, Myles Downey, LID Publishing, 2014, p 39

[2] From The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE, Paul Z. Jackson and Mark McKergow, Nicholas Brealey International, 2002